Take it as a warning. Clarice Lispector prefaces this metaphysically intense novel with a short address to her “possible readers” that states:
This is a book like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly—even passing through the opposite of what it approaches. They who, only they, will slowly come to understand that this book takes nothing from no one.
She does not want your existential “blood” on her hands, dear reader. You have to be willing to surrender it freely, to engage with G. H.’s passion on your own terms, experience her horror and joy as she struggles to make sense of, and give voice to, the “truth” that she has just come to understand. And, if you do, you may well find that the journey is unforgettable.
It is clear from the stuttering opening sentence of The Passion According to G.H. that the narrator, a woman known only by the initials embossed on her suitcases, is uncertain, fragile, and disoriented. It is only by recounting the events of the previous day, by shaping them and giving them form, that she can make sense of the radical transformation she seems to have experienced. This is not a conventional narrative. In her retelling, addressed to the invisible owner of a disembodied hand that she imagines she is holding—the “you” who is at once the reader and, as the monologue progresses, a stand-in for an intimate from her past—she pieces together a superficially simple encounter that unleashes in her a torrent of thoughts, images, and emotions. She spirals into a very vivid personal hell, suffers a crisis of vast existential and spiritual dimensions, and emerges a decidedly changed being. But what of it? As the novel opens G. H. has no clear idea, she must start with who she was to discover who—or what—she has become.
One day earlier, she had arisen late with the intention of cleaning and tidying the room where her former maid had lived, a task she anticipated to be arduous yet satisfying. Assuming the room would be dirty, dank, and disordered, she would exercise her talent or, rather vocation, for “arranging.” G. H. is a wealthy sculptress living in Rio de Janeiro, who paints a portrait of herself as an independent woman, with no husband or child; she admits to a certain measure of vanity, but confesses that hers was a rather referential existence, one that in essence left her ripe for the events that would soon unfold:
My question, if there was one, was not: “Who am I,” but “Who is around me.” My cycle was complete: what I lived in the present was already getting ready so I could later understand myself. An eye watched over my life. This eye was what I would probably now call truth, now mortality, now human law, now God, now me. I lived mostly inside a mirror. Two minutes after my birth I had already lost my origins.
G. H.’s rapid descent to the brink of madness, begins when she enters the maid’s room and discovers a stark, nearly barren chamber. Most unsettling is the sight of three charcoal figures etched onto the whitewashed wall: a man, a woman and a dog. But the unexpected calm and order of the entire room catches our narrator completely off guard. The bed has been stripped, the curtains are gone from the window, three monogrammed suitcases are stacked along one wall and the narrow wardrobe, stands cracked and bleached by the harsh sunlight. She describes the room as “the portrait of an empty stomach.” And as she ventures into the room, she feels as if she has entered a nothingness, a formless space that cannot contain her. To gain some control she decides to wash down the wardrobe, and that is when her nightmare begins.
Cracking open the wardrobe, she confronts a cockroach, emerging through the door. The sight of the roach ignites a primal reaction, tied to memories of childhood poverty, but ultimately bound to a much deeper fear for G. H.—the cockroach is a prehistoric creature, durable and enduring, holding in its being the horror of unformed eternal existence. However, it is her response to the situation, her decision to kill the roach, that triggers what will escalate into an all-consuming metaphysical crisis.
To trace out G. H.’s tortured passion, one step removed through the limitations of a relatively brief review, one can only vaguely approximate the actual experience of revelling in Lispector’s haunting, sensual language. Through the agony and ecstasy of her protagonist’s journey of self-discovery we are invited to bear witness, to share her joy, to feel her pain, to taste the dawning strangeness of it all. And her awareness is startlingly acute. For instance, in her act of violence against the roach she instantly realizes that she has violated something in herself:
Because during those seconds, eyes shut, I was becoming aware of myself as one becomes aware of a taste: all of me tasted of steel and verdigris. I was all acid like metal on the tongue, like a crushed green plant, my whole taste rose to my mouth. What had I done to myself? With my heart thumping, my temples pulsing, this is what I had done to myself: I had killed. I had killed! But why such delight, and besides that a vital acceptance of that delight? For how long, then, had I been about to kill?
The terror that drives the narrator toward the breaking point is grounded in her acknowledgement of a kinship between herself as a human woman and the despised roach. As someone accustomed to defining the self only in the context of the other, it is conceivable that to see herself reflected in such a primitive, base creature could provoke a crisis of Biblical proportions. It shakes her admittedly superficial self-identity to the core. To recognize herself in the face of the roach is to acknowledge the potential annihilation of the self. “—Hold my hand” she implores her invisible listener, “because I feel that I’m going. I’m going once again toward the most divine primary life, I’m going toward a hell of raw life.”
During the hours that follow, G. H. will wrestle with questions of heaven, hell, morality, humanity and, most critically, the troubling reactions that these metaphysical problems provoke in her. She fears her own ambivalence, and discovers that the promise of hell is not a torture of pain but a torture of joy. In what she will insist are not hallucinations but “visual meditations”, her awareness of being is stretched and exploded, extending back beyond the Cradle of Civilization across deserts and oceans to reach beyond the time of the dinosaurs. To encompass the humble origins of the primeval roach. Gradually, slowly, she will begin to fashion a reformed, redefined spiritual sense of self, to approach her own salvation, to embrace life in all of its uncertain terms.
From its opening passages, The Passion According to G. H. is propelled forward with a relentless intensity that builds as the narrative proceeds. The final sentence or phrase of each chapter is carried forward to open the next, as if with each chapter the narrator is reorienting herself, gathering her resources to move on with her story. The revelations advance in fits and starts, more noticeably as her questioning becomes increasingly obsessed with the nature of being. There seem to be things she can only come to terms with piece by piece, as she attempts to reconstruct and express an understanding of a world in which she can exist. In the end, she must come to an acceptance that being is a process, an act of trust in the unknowable, a continual active re-engagement. Her creator, Clarice Lispector, knows intimately that language—words—are essential to articulating, not just the emotional journey G. H. endures, they are essential to articulating the truths of human existence, once being has been stripped to its most fundamental elements.
Although I have read many of her short stories, this was my first encounter with one of Lispector’s novels. I had wanted to read this particular title for years, but had not realized how closely her theme ties into the existential questions that drive my own most personal writing project. And in a timely instance of serendipity, my finishing this work dovetailed nicely with joining the editorial team of The Scofield in time to copyedit and proofread 70 pages of the upcoming Lispector issue which will be out very soon. The opportunity for some very focused, close reading of some wonderful Lispector inspired writing, including a number of detailed critical essays, has left me eager to read the rest of her work. I can fully understand why she was (and is) so beloved in Brazil, and such a powerfully influential writer.
The Passion According to G.H. was originally published in 1964. This evocative translation from the Portuguese by Idra Novey (2012) is published by New Directions.
Update: The Scofield Issue 2.1 Clarice Lispector and the Act of Writing is now available and can be downloaded for free as a PDF. You’ll find it here. You will find a wealth of Lispector related and inspired reading, including two short stories and much, much more!
20 thoughts on “I am a horror in the face of things: The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector”
Wow this sounds like the most intense novel I’ve heard of for a long time, definitely not one to read at bedtime, well not for me anyway since it demands a lot of concentration to get the real power. I have another of her books on my TBR – The Hotel Inspector. Now I wonder if this is as intense?..
I think this is her most intense title, I don’t know the other. She was very original in her vision in language use. She is sometimes called the female Kafka but this piece has a more positive, spiritual element. She was a huge admirer of Herman Hesse. As horrific as this sounds I would say she emerges with the potential of living a more authentic life than before. And the language, is amazing. A strangely engaging piece.
This is certainly one of her most powerful novels. I’ve recently reread her debut novel and was slightly disappointed this time round (review coming soon): I felt it was too much a novel for young people. But this one sounds like one for all ages!
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I have not read her first novel, but she was only 23 when she wrote it. This novel would likely read very differently, depending on your age. Some level of life experience probably helps.
Oooh, this sounds brilliant and very much my kind of thing. I read your review thinking of the Yellow Wallpaper, which is a rather intense read, but this one sounds even more intense. Clarice Lipseptor has been on my radar for a long time after a Brazilian friend recommended her to me, but I’ve yet to read her. A good place to start, perhaps?
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Clarice is strong medicine and GH is full-powered. I’d start with some short-stories to get acclimated. That said: she is quite, quite wonderful. (Benjamin Moser’s biography of Lispector I’d also rate & recommend very highly.)
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Thanks for your suggestion. I started with her stories myself. The Moser biography sounds terrific too. The essays I have been proofing for for this Lispector special issue of the Scofield (see my reply to Kim below) have me so excited to read everything. She was exploring matter that have become critical to me, albeit in a different context.
I was excited to read of this Scofield edition you make mention of. Will definitely look that up. Thanks!
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Thanks for the recommendations; duly noted!
I certainly was not disappointed, but the more I have read about her, the more I want to read. She was definitely a singular stylist and a fascinating, complex, original woman. I suggest you watch for the next issue of The Scofield. When it becomes available it can be downloaded as a PDF (for free of course). The magazine takes an underappreciated author and a theme associated with their work and builds a huge collection of reviews, writings, quotes inspired by the writer or theme. Each issue also covers newly released books, original poetry and stories and material in the public domain. The first section is always a Port of Entry – short reviews (or trailers) for some of the author’s key works. It’s a great way to get an idea where to start.
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Wow; that sounds fabulous. Will book mark that link and keep my eye out. Thanks.
I recognise an element of this relentless intensity from Near to the Wild Heart, the only Lispector I’ve read so far. Maybe it’s too soon to tell, but I’m not sure if she’s really for me. I find her intriguing but somewhat frustrating. Maybe I need to give her another go at some point.
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If you do decide to give her another chance, Jacqui, I would suggest you consider this. I would be interested in Wild Heart but only because of the subject/themes she tackles at such an early age. G.H. was written 20 years later, after her marriage ended and she returned to Brazil. Her novels from the 60s and 70s appeal much more. This novel is very intense, but it is beautifully written and, in the end, truly life affirming. The narrator emerges from her experience more fully alive than she was at the start of the day. Of course, if you don’t like it, don’t blame me, okay? 🙂
This is a writer I discovered through blogging. Her work isn’t available in paperback in France. I haven’t had the chance to try one of her books.
The passage about the cockrach reminded me of Kafka. Do you think she was infuenced by The Metamorphosis ?
PS : I didn’t know the English word “verdigris”. It sounds like the French vert-de-gris was mispronounced and became verdigris.
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It’s too bad her work is not in paper because from all the reading I have been doing to copy-edit this special issue on Lispector I learned that France was the first country outside of Brazil to celebrate her work. In English her major works have been re-translated in recent years though there are still some as yet untranslated. Kafka does come to mind and she is also an existential writer, but her writing is definitely unique and powerful.
Verdigris, in English, refers to that green colour copper gets – not something you would normally taste, but I love the poetic quality of that passage.
I know, it’s strange she’s not more popular here.
Vert-de-gris means exactly the same thing. I really think verdigris comes from the French word.
> As someone accustomed to defining the self only in the context of the other, it is conceivable that to see herself reflected in such a primitive, base creature could provoke a crisis of Biblical proportions.
Shows an anthropocentrism in Sartre. Hadn’t thought of him that way before. Neither had I wondered if there’s such a thing as a vegan literature. Now I find there is indeed:
Is Lispector’s book an ethical treatise as well as an ontological one?
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I suspect she would not want to see herself as a writer of treatises of any sort (though she was a lawyer by training and one of Brazil’s first female journalists). Her character does confront questions of personal ethics (how should I behave/how should I feel). It is not a “green” or vegan ethics though (were she alive today that might be another matter – her politics that do come through in her writing involve the role of women in society, economic inequality etc.) This book explores the internal experience of one woman at a point of metaphysical crisis and the difficulty of expressing the experience in language. Very little actually happens and the simple killing of a cockroach seems extreme but GH’s account is completely absorbing. She does actually taste the milky substance the dying roach exudes – a symbolic communion she chooses to engage in.
I have to confess that since writing this review I have been steeped in essays about Lispector’s writing through copy-editing this magazine I’m helping with, so my appreciation of this book and her writing is deepening. And her existential concerns tie in closely with mine. I’ll be reading more soon.
The Hour of the Star had a similar intensity, while at the same time being slippery and hard to hold on to. It’s easy to see why those who discovered her before us press her on us so eagerly.
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